UPDATED 07/29/11 5:45 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — U.S. Customs officials in Chicago have discovered that a Mexican figurine that was set to be shipped to Canada was actually a 2,000-year-old pre-Columbian artifact.
And despite paying $550 for the ancient artifact, the buyer in British Columbia will not be getting it. Customs and Border Protection agents have intercepted the ancient figurine as illegally-obtained cultural property.
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Agents found the figurine in a shipment from Indiana to British Columbia in April. It was an orange figurine of a woman, and agents brought in anthropologists from the Field Museum to find out more about it.
The anthropologists found that it dated from the first century A.D., and came from the Nayarit region of West Mexico.
“Archeology captures history before the written word and when a piece of history is lost, even a small piece like this figurine, it is gone forever. Ancient tombs and graves are places known to have valuable artifacts where gravesite looters continually rob countries of their heritage,” acting Customs and Border Patrol Chicago director of field operations Robyn Dessaure said in a news release. “That is why foreign governments are extremely interested in the recovery of these authentic historical items and appreciate CBP officers as protectors of rare and priceless ancient history in many parts of the world.”
Field Museum anthropologist Gary Feinman said he is pleased with what the customs service has done in seizing the artifact, which will be repatriated to Mexico.
But he says the object’s context – and history – are largely lost.
Feinman says the problem of people looting tombs and other archaeological sites – taking artifacts out of their context – does a great disservice to science and history.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had more of these shaft tombs in West Mexico that have been looted than have been scientifically excavated. That’s the depth of the problem,” he said.
Feinman says it’s not clear how long ago it happened, but removing the figure from its original site destroyed a great deal. He said looters robbing a tomb might have been responsible.
“When you destroy a site, it’s pretty much analogous to somebody burning historical books representing a time period deep in the past,” Feinman said, “and the destruction of that site is not anything that could ever be pieced back together, just like the ashes of a book can’t be pieced back together.”
The Mexican consulate in Chicago recently affirmed the figurine as a cultural artifact that had been illegally exported from Mexico. It will be returned to the country in a repatriation ceremony.
The case remains under investigation, Customs officials said.